We are ruled by economists.

April 21, 2014

http://blogs.reuters.com/anatole-kaletsky/2014/04/19/time-to-stop-following-defunct-economic-policies/#comment-1696

I’ve been gone for two weeks and have a lot of catching-up to do, but thought I’d begin with something most recent.  You’ve heard me claim that there are no political solutions to our slow-motion economic demise because our political leaders simply hand over economic policy to some economist who, invariably, regardless of whether they subscribe to the philosophies of Keynes or Hayek, are pro-growth and lean heavily on population growth to achieve it.  Only by opening the eyes of economists can there be any hope for real change.

So I’m especially fond of any writings that take the field of economics to task.  The above-linked editorial appeared on Reuters a couple of days ago.  (And I especially love the opportunity to be the first to comment!)  In this piece, the author, Anatole Kaletsky, calls for “… new thinking about politics and not just economics.”  He begins with a quote from economist John Maynard Keynes:

The ideas of economists, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.

I couldn’t have said it any better.  The world is ruled not by politicial leaders but by economists.  It’s a scary thought when you realize that economics isn’t a real science at all, but something more akin to philosophy, mixed with a little psychology and some mathematical expressions of theories to lend it credibility – theories virtually devoid of facts and data to support them.  Real sciences are rooted in data, and real scientists go unafraid wherever the data takes them.  That’s why technology advances at breakneck speed while our economy limps along the edge of a precipice.  Scientists examine all possibilities.  Economists bury their heads in the sand, cowering in the face of criticism and unwilling to ponder where their single-minded devotion to growth may lead.

Advertisements

Cramer on Free Trade and Immigration

January 9, 2014

Did you watch NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday?  For those of you who didn’t, check out this roundtable discussion of the economy with Gene Sperling, Director of the National Economic Council and Jim Cramer, host of CNBC’s “Mad Money” and former hedge fund manager.  Approximately 5 minutes and 40 seconds into the discussion, the topic turns toward globalization, free trade and immigration.  I was pleasantly surprised – stunned, actually – (and I think you will be too) at Cramer’s comments.  Essentially, he asked “why do we continue to pursue free trade” and, regarding immigration, asked “why don’t we worry about putting our own people back to work first?”

It’s a sign of cracking support for globalization and immigration when someone of Cramer’s influence begins to challenge these economists’ sacred cows.  Good for you, Jim!


The National Debt: How Big and Who Pays?

December 17, 2012

In light of the intense debate over the “fiscal cliff” – triggered by unsustainable federal budget deficits that are growing the national debt at an alarming rate – this might be a good time to revisit the national debt and put that problem in perspective.  Just how bad is it?  Who’s on the hook to pay it?  What’s the best way to fix it? 

Most economists relate the national debt to our gross domestic product, or GDP – in other words, the size of the economy.  So let’s begin there.  The following shows the growth in our national debt vs. growth in GDP:  National Debt vs. GDP, 1929-2012.  (Source:  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.)  Note that the two have grown in tandem but, beginning in the early 1980’s, the national debt began to catch up to GDP and the lines crossed in 2010. 

To make it easier to understand, let’s look at the national debt as a percentage of GDP:  National Debt as Percentage of Chained GDP.  (Source:  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)  The war effort (World War II) skyrocketed the national debt to 120% of GDP but, once the war ended and federal spending returned to normal levels, growth in the economy steadily outpaced growth in the national debt until the national debt fell to only about 33% of the economy in 1981.  Aside from a brief period in the late ’90s, when a bubble in the stock market and in the PC/cell phone/internet businesses generated a ton of federal revenue, resulting in balanced budgets, the national debt has grown steadily as a percentage of GDP, but really began to accelerate in 2008 when the “Great Recession” took hold.  Now the national debt exceeds our GDP, a milestone where some economists begin to fret.  How much debt is too much?  I don’t think anyone really knows.  As a percentage of GDP, some nations’ debts are actually much larger than that of the United States.  Interest payments on the debt are still a relatively small part of the federal budget, though growing. 

But who’s really on the hook for this debt?  If holders of America’s bonds decided to cash them in and demand repayment of their principal, where would the money come from?  The federal government would have to extract revenue from “the economy” in order to come up with the cash.  But that’s misleading.  Almost all federal revenue comes from the pockets of individual taxpayers.  Any revenue generated by taxing business simply gets rolled into the cost of their products and we still end up paying.  So, what’s more significant than the percentage of GDP that the national debt represents is your share of it.  How much do you owe?  Would you be able to pay it?  Here’s a chart of the national debt per capita, and how it’s grown from 1929 to today:  National Debt Per Capita, 1929-2012.  (Sources:  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and U.S. Census Bureau)

Yikes!  Now that’s scary!  On average, every man, woman and child owes about $44,000 on the national debt – a new record in 2012, and climbing really fast.  That’s more than double what it was at the end of World War II.  If you’re the breadwinner for a family of four, your family owes $176,000.  Could you afford to pay that?  Few could.  Virtually no one could by having a percentage deducted from their pay in the form of taxes.  It’d have to come from your net worth – your home and your savings. 

So let’s take a look at household net worth to see just how many people could afford this.  This chart shows both the median (the point at which half of the people have higher net worth, and half have lower net worth) and the mean (average) net worth of households:  Household Net Worth.  (Source:  U.S. Federal Reserve)  First of all, as an aside, notice that the median net worth hasn’t grown at all since 1983, the year the Federal Reserve first began tracking this data on a triennial basis.  But the mean has grown nicely.  This means that the net worth of the top few percent of households has grown at a phenomenal rate.  In 2010, the median household net worth was about $77,000.  But, on average, each household owes $176,000 on the national debt.  In other words, if your net worth is anywhere near the median or less, you’re broke!  You just don’t know it yet. 

In actuality, though, the national debt wouldn’t be spread evenly across all households.  The rich would have to shoulder much more of the burden, since their net worth is much higher.  So how much would each household owe if the percentage of net worth was the same for everyone?  To calculate this, we divide the national debt by the sum total net worth of all households combined.  Here’s the chart:  National Debt as Percentage of Total Household Net Worth.  (Sources:  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis and U.S. Federal Reserve)

As you can see, this figure held fairly steady for decades in the 12-20% range.  But, in 2010 (following a brief period during which if fell, thanks to the bubble in housing market), it jumped to 28%, thanks to a big jump in the national debt and a fairly big drop in household net worth in the wake of the “Great Recession” a few years ago.  The point is that, if we’re all to pay an equal amount in terms of percentage, we’ll all be called upon to fork over 28% of our net worth. 

What are the odds that all of America’s creditors will want to cash out at the same time?  Slim to none.  Why would they?  They’d be paid in dollars.  Then what?  What do they do with those dollars which, ultimately, can only be redeemed in the U.S.?  Nevertheless, as the debt goes higher, so too does the risk that more and more creditors will become uncomfortable and will want their money back.  One way or the other, the debt has to begin coming down at some point, whether it’s done by the government through tax increases and spending cuts, or by creditors cashing out.

In essence, you owe 28% of your net worth to the federal deficit spending that has taken place over the decades, propping up the economy and making us all feel wealthier than we really are.  And, bear in mind that the median household net worth hasn’t risen since 1983.  Were it not for that deficit spending, most of us would actually be 28% poorer.  The unraveling of the national debt process is going to be painful.  Even if it occurs over many years, it will be a matter of the federal government withdrawing stimulus from the economy.  It’ll leave all of us poorer than we would be if the deficit spending continued – something that can no longer be sustained.

Of course, there is a way that the national debt could be cut painlessly – a way that no politician or economist has dared to address – a way that addresses what necessitated the deficit spending in the first place – and that’s fixing our trade policy to restore a balance of trade.  As I’ve discussed many times in the past, it’s no mere coincidence that the growth in our national debt closely tracks the growth in our cumulative trade deficit.  You’ll notice that, in all of these charts, things took a turn for the worse in the early 1980s.  That coincides closely with the beginning of our string of 37 consecutive annual trade deficits that began in 1976, sapping nearly $12 trillion from our economy.  Here’s that chart once again:  Cumulative Trade Deficit vs Growth in National Debt.  (Source:  U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis)

Without tackling the trade deficit, any meaningful progress toward reducing the national debt is impossible without throwing the nation into recession.  Both parties know it.  Neither wants to address it.  Republicans love our trade policy because it’s in the best interest of their rich, corporate benefactors.  Democrats love it too – perhaps not to the same degree – because it makes people more dependent on government largesse.  But now both parties are stuck.  The most likely action is some token, trivial revenue increases and spending cuts in return for mutual agreement to address the problem in a more meaningful way, perhaps after the next election.  And the next time the debt is tackled again?  The result will be the same.


Hadas: Admit Economic Ignorance

November 3, 2012

http://blogs.reuters.com/edward-hadas/2012/10/31/admit-economic-ignorance/

This above-linked editorial by Edward Hadas appeared on Reuters this week.  Hadas calls for economists to admit that they’re “stumped” and that ignorance reigns in the field of economics.

Rather than repeat myself, the following was my reply (which you’ll find several comments down):

Good article, but the whole focus on financial machinations is illustrative of the problem with the field of economics. It focuses all of its attention there while maintaining its self-imposed ban on considering the effects of what is, by far, the biggest driving force behind economic trends today – population growth. If economists ever did consider the full range of effects – beyond mere resource issues – they might come to recognize the inverse relationship between population density and per capita consumption and its role in driving unemployment and global trade imbalances.

As rising population density chokes the life out of per capita consumption (which is inextricably linked to per capita employment), governments are becoming increasingly dependent upon deficit spending to maintain an illusion of prosperity. And even that tactic is rapidly becoming more impotent.

In conclusion, Hadas says:

Economists who can answer any of these questions deserve Nobel prizes. There is a generation’s worth to be won. Unfortunately, while the prizes can wait, policy has to be made now, in confusion and ignorance.

Can the field of economics, so bent on defending its precious mathematical models, ever wake up to reality?  I wonder.  They’re much more likely to resort to a tactic that we in the engineering world used to jokingly suggest as a solution to difficult problems:  multiply by zero and add the answer.  The Nobel prizes will likely go to economists who develop “fudge factors” that make all seem right with their models.

Perhaps only after the field of economics finds the mocking and insults that’s heaped upon them because of their ignorance greater than the derision they endured over Malthus’ theory will they decide to open their minds a little.  In the meantime, they will continue to wallow in ignorance and our political leaders, under their advisement, will continue to serve up ignorant economic policy.


Want Less Federal Government Intrusion? Focus on Trade Policy.

February 15, 2012

One of the biggest rallying cries of the right these days is ever-greater intrusion by the federal government into our lives.  They have a point, and the health care reform enacted in President Obama’s first year in office is a case in point.  It’s instructive to examine that case to gain insight into just why the federal government plays an ever-larger role in our lives.

Why was health care  reform enacted?  Well, the fact that Democrats held both branches of Congress and the White House certainly played a part; there’s no denying that.  But public sentiment also played a big part.  Employers had been jacking up premiums for health care insurance for years until they were no longer affordable.  More recently, in the wake of the near-depression, more employers were simply canceling such benefits altogether.  More people were faced with the only option left – buying individual policies on the open market – a real eye-opener for people who’d been used to paying group rates. 

People had had enough.  They wanted something done.  Something was.  And the mandates necessary to make it work – especially the mandate for everyone to obtain insurance – especially the young and healthy – came as a bitter pill to swallow.  (Of course, no one complained when they were mandated by their employers to participate in the plan.) 

So, in this case, this “intrusion” by the federal government into our lives was precipitated by slow but steady growth in the imbalance in the supply and demand for labor that made it possible for employers to cut benefits without fear of losing employees.  And the same is true for many federal spending programs.  As state and local budgets force cuts in education, in police and fire protection, in infrastructure spending, etc., the federal government steps in with grants and stimulus spending to make up the difference.  Otherwise our society would slowly collapse.  And, as is the case with all money, federal money comes with strings attached. 

Ultimately, it is the trade deficit that lies at the root of ever-more pervasive federal intrusion into our lives.  To better understand this, you need to understand the international flow of dollars caused by trade.  This won’t be anything new to those of you who have read Five Short Blasts. (See Figure 8-1 on page 143.)  For the benefit of others, that understanding begins with the simple fact that every dollar that is shipped overseas to purchase imported goods must eventually return to the U.S. – one way or another – since the U.S. is the only place where U.S. dollars can be spent.

“Not so,” you might say.  “Oil is priced in dollars.  China can use their dollars to buy oil.”  Very true.  However, that leaves oil exporters like Saudi Arabia with a growing mountain of dollars that still can only find a home in the U.S. 

Dollars come back to the U.S. in various ways:

  1. For the purchase of American exports
  2. For direct investment in the U.S., as in the case of a foreign automaker building a plant in the U.S.
  3. Indirect private investment, such as the purchase of corporate stocks and bonds.
  4. Indirect public investment, such as the purchase of government bonds. 

Regarding item no. 1, only a little over half of the dollars spent on imports come back in the form of export purchases.  Regarding no. 2, net direct investment in the U.S. is actually negative.  More dollars are invested overseas than in the U.S., making the challenge of attracting dollars back to the U.S. that much greater.  Regarding no. 3, we already have heavy foreign ownership of American companies.  To continue to pour money into their stocks and bonds would simply create a market bubble that would soon collapse, as the stock market did in March of 2000.  (And, by the way, it was precisely this kind of foreign investment in mortgage-backed securities that led to the collapse of the housing market and financial institutions in 2008.) 

That leaves one option – no. 4 – the purchase of government issued debt, or Treasury bonds.  As long as we continue to run a trade deficit, it’s absolutely vital to the economy that the government issue debt to draw those dollars back into the U.S.  But that’s not enough.  The mere purchase of bonds does nothing to offset the harm done to the economy by imports.  The only way to actually plow those dollars back into the economy is through federal spending. 

Now, suppose that you’re a state – say California.  The citizens of California spend their money on imports – a net outflow of cash.  Like virtually every state, it is required by its constitution to balance its budget.  As it attempts to do so, imports steadily drain money from the state.  So each year, state revenues which are a fixed percentage of the state economy, continue to decline.  The state must cut more spending:  cut funding for schools, lay off police and firemen, cut pensions for state workers, etc. 

There is only one way to keep the economy of California (and every other state) from decline, and that’s for the federal government to inject money back into the economy.  To make a long story short, Californians’ money goes to China, Germany, Japan and others.  Those countries then use the money to purchase treasuries from the federal government.  The federal government then plows that money back into California in the form of federal grants to repair school district budgets, rehire police and firemen, pay unemployment benefits and, yes, to pay for new health programs to offset the cuts of those benefits in the private sector.  And the biggest program for injecting money back into the economy is tax cuts, offsetting the downward pressure on wages wrought by the imbalance in the supply of labor.

It’s a vicious circle, and there’s only one way to break it – by restoring a balance of trade.  No trade deficit – no need to issue federal debt.  No federal debt – no money to plow back into the economy.  No federal money (with strings attached) coming back into the economy – no more intrusion by the federal government in our lives.

What’s going on in Greece today is a perfect example of what would happen without this mechanism to plow federal dollars back into the economy.  Just like the U.S., Greece has a huge trade deficit.  It too relied upon debt to offset the negative consequences.  However, once it became a member of the European Union, it lost its ability to grow its debt further.  It became like a U.S. state.  But, in the case of the EU, its members don’t get money plowed back into the economy throught the issuance of EU debt.  The EU is loaning money to Greece, but demands that it be repaid.  The EU hasn’t yet figured out that this is an unsustainable recipe for depression for its members with trade deficits. 

Yes, it’s unsustainable for the U.S. to continue to grow its debt forever, too, but as long as the U.S. continues to run a trade deficit, it’s absolutely vital to keep the economy afloat.  The president recently proposed a budget for 2013 with a deficit of $900 billion.  Given that the trade deficit in 2011 was $737 billion and is growing fast, it’s very likely that the trade deficit will be about $900 billion in 2013.  It’s no coincidence that those two numbers match. 

The longer we run a trade deficit, it’s unavoidable that the federal government will play a bigger role in our lives.  Those who complain about such intrusion by the federal government into our lives are wasting their breath.  Unless we all turn our focus to the trade deficit, we’d just better learn to accept the strings that come attached to the federal money that keeps us all afloat.


A $22 Trillion Economic Stimulus Plan That Costs Nothing

December 12, 2011

On Friday morning, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released its monthly report of the U.S. balance of trade for the month of October.  The October trade deficit marked a very significant, sad milestone that went completely unnoticed by the media, perhaps because I’m the only one tracking this data.  In October, the cumulative U.S. trade deficit since our last trade surplus in 1975 reached $11.01 trillion (expressed in current dollars). 

It’s no mere coincidence that the growth in the cumulative trade deficit tracks closely with the growth in our national debt over the same time frame.  Deficit spending is used by the federal government to offset the economic drain caused by the trade deficit.  Dollars spent on imports return to the U.S. in the form of purchases of treasury bonds – bonds used to fund deficit spending.  The following is a chart of the growth in the cumulative trade deficit vs. growth in the national debt.  (Note that the trade deficit figure for 2011 is through October, while the national debt figure is current.)

Cumulative Trade Deficit vs Growth in National Debt

Now, imagine the effect on our economy if we had that $11 trillion back – real money invested in the economy instead of bonds held by China, Germany and Japan.  No one would be talking about the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.  There would be no unemployment problem.  There woud be no debt problem. 

In fact, the effect would be doubled, since the effect of the trade deficit upon GDP (gross domestic product) is understated by half.  Why?  Because the trade deficit is merely a subtraction from GDP.  As an example, suppose someone buys a Japanese car for $20,000.  That reduces our GDP by $20,000.  So, if that person forgoes the purchase of that car and buys nothing at all, our GDP rises by $20,000.  However, if that person then buys a domestic vehicle for $20,000, then another $20,000 is added to GDP.  That’s a $40,000 swing in GDP.  So if $11 trillion in imports were replaced with domestically-made prodcuts, our GDP would grow by $22 trillion.  Compare that to the economic stimulus programs the Obama administration has pushed to jump-start the economy, programs of a few hundred billion.  Now it should be clear just how damaging our trade deficit has been.  Simply changing our trade policy to assure a balance of trade would have the same effect as a $22 trillion economic stimulus plan, but would cost absolutely nothing. 

* * * * *

By the way, notice that the growth in the national debt has raced ahead of the growth in the trade deficit before, back in the early 90’s, when the economy was also mired in a recession.  It appears that we’re repeating the same pattern.  The growth in the debt is likely to be slowed in the next few years, given the pressure to rein in our spending.  But it’s unlikely that there will be any let-up in the growth in the cumulative trade deficit, barring a radical change in trade policy.  So I expect these lines to converge again.


Paychecks Fall Again in ’10 to Lowest Level Since ’99

October 21, 2011

http://blogs.reuters.com/david-cay-johnston/2011/10/19/first-look-at-us-pay-data-its-awful/

As reported in the above-linked Reuters article, Americans’ paychecks fell for the third year in a row to their lowest level since 1999.  After median pay peaked at just over $27,000 per year in 2007, paychecks took their biggest plunge in 2010 (the year that stimulus spending and the Fed’s “QE2” program were at their peaks) since the beginning of the recession.  That really doesn’t bode well for the future, now that both stimulus programs have ended and Congress is under pressure to cut spending even more. 

Until economists pull their heads from the sand and once again consider the consequences of a world with ever-worsening population density, nothing is going to change.  This is the new normal – rising unemployment, falling incomes, increasing poverty and misery.  No politician can fix this as long as their advisor economists continue to believe that “economic growth” (driven by population growth) and more free trade are the remedies.